Shadow of the Vampire
Director: E. Elias Merhige. Cast: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Aden Gillett, Ronan Vibert. Screenplay: Steven Katz.

For a film that on the surface seems refreshingly comfortable with egghead metaphors and stylistic pastiche, E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire ultimately proves an entertaining but hollow venture, all bark but no bite. The picture is currently enjoying a high-profile limited release by virtue of Willem Dafoe's much-buzzed-about performance of the Max Schreck role in Merhige's fantastical reimagining of F.W. Murnau's classic vampire film Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. Curiously, though, and despite some extremely promising introductory scenes, Dafoe's performance almost certainly lies at the heart of why the film doesn't work. As with Angelina Jolie in last year's Girl, Interrupted, the newer film, likely with visions of Oscar dancing in its head, bends over backwards to give its featured supporting player room to Act. Dafoe can't really be credited, I don't think, with "stealing a show" that's so transparently eager to be stolen—and, in truth, his broad approach to comedy and laboriously mannered physical postures perhaps deserve an award for Most Acting as opposed to "Best." The really interesting parts of the picture, almost all of them stacked into the first hour, scatter for cover once it becomes, for better or worse (worse, I think) a one-man show.

Nominally, the star of Merhige's picture is John Malkovich, playing Murnau as one of those nervy salamandrian aesthetes he was tossing out left and right before Spike Jonze lightened him up. Indeed, it is only out of good will for the actor's underrated work and phenomenal good sportsmanship in Being John Malkovich that I was willing to sit through this routine again (but please, John, don't push your luck next time). Murnau is already amidst early shooting on Nosferatu when the film starts. Producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier), whose secondary roles as art director and costume designer keep him on the set, is constantly worried about the expense involved in Murnau's uncompromising visions. As soon as a few perfuctory interiors are shot in Germany, Murnau insists on carting the whole crew to a found location in Czechoslovakia, a nearly unheard-of practice in the 1920s film world. The director himself sees no other option. Besides, after putting up with vapid leading man Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard, hilarious) and bitch-goddess starlet Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack), he feels he deserves some concessions.

What is fascinating about the early scenes, not to mention a perfectly elliptical Art Deco opening credit sequence, is the insight they provide into shooting regimens in the era of the great Weimar silent films. The liberating absence of mikes becomes, under Murnau's lordly command, an easier way to rule over his cast's performances: he constantly calls out cues and motivations to his performers, who instantly mimic the desired emotion (or, in von Wangenheim's case, they do the best they can). Cinematographer Lou Bogue has done a phenomenal job, well assisted by the art directors and costumers, of recreating some of Nosferatu's signature scene as Malkovich "creates" them on film. Many of Murnau's favorite techniques (irises, halted dissolves) as well as the crude technologies available to him are so outdated now that it is, ironically, a technical marvel to have duplicated them so exactly. The reconstructions match nicely with actual snippets from the silent film that have been posited through the new picture. Merhige even generates some nice effects by using these signature dissolves in the fictionalized narrative, though these gestures are one of the many ornamental pleasures that get sacrificed as the film goes on.

In fact, it is hard in retrospect not to view the scene in which the Jofa Studios crew packs up and leaves for Czechoslovakia as a metaphor for the closing-down of some denser, less predictable version of Shadow of the Vampire that might have been. One does not have to wait long for the movie to tranfer from high-mindedness to high-concept, the hook of Steven Katz's screenplay being that the grotesquely featured, reputedly aloof Schreck was a real vampire, recruited onto the set by Murnau for the purpose of total verisimilitude. The misrepresentation of Schreck, at least in historical terms (he was not, I repeat, a vampire!) is an obvious flight of fancy from which Merhige makes metaphorical leaps between filmmaking and vampirism. The representation of Murnau, as it happens, is only slightly more plausible. Though he did once build a train for the set of Sunrise that, to meet a shot's perspectival needs, was made of progressively shorter cars (the middle cars peopled with midgets, the caboose with dolls!), he was not a fanatic of realism per sé, including Stanislavskian method acting—"truth" and "reality" for an imagist like Murnau had no compulsory relationship to the facts of the lived-in world.

And yet, even if we grant Shadow of the Vampire its decidedly skewed take on the Nosferatu backstory—and, given its overt announcements of its own imaginative character, why shouldn't we?—the conceit is surprisingly limited. Most of the points available to be made about the depleting power of the camera, the way it "sucks the life" out of the subjects it photographs, or about the amorality of the film artist, or any artist, have already been made, and with greater force and panache: Rear Window, Peeping Tom, Blow-Up, even Strange Days come to mind. If these topics, in fairness, cannot be called exhausted as thematic groundworks, Shadow of the Vampire makes them feel exhausted. Also, the film keeps shifting tones, from aesthetic tract to arch comedy, from light spooks to on-set spoof. It is not clear whether Merhige is deliberately resisting a genre classification or merely trying to please too many audiences at once. And speaking of pleasing audiences, it is amazing that Dafoe's Schreck has such a healthy appetite for the frightened crew members; a lesser actor would surely have gorged already on all that chewed scenery.

The lingering pleasures of Shadow of the Vampire are, then, and perhaps appropriately, tucked away in the shadow of that "look-at-me-Ma" vampire. Merhige dwells lovingly on the inside of a train engine as it begins to move, on primitive automobiles, and on Murnau's own filming apparatus. These shots remind us that technology itself, particularly that of the cinema, were still new and titillating devices in the 1920s—and even, much like vampires, a little frightening. Izzard, McCormack, and Cary Elwes, as Ufa cameraman Fritz Wagner, all make nice impressions in their limited roles, though patently encouraged by Merhige to assume the histrionic style of their alter egos. Katz even gives Dafoe a break from all the mugging with a lovely scene in which Schreck offers an unpredictably poignant reading of Dracula; for once, Shadow of the Vampire achieves such a gossamer emotional register that the surprise comic set-piece at the end of the scene explodes with real vigor. At too many other moments, it is the picture itself, and not just its pile-up of victims, that feels drained of its blood. B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe
Best Makeup: Ann Buchanan & Amber Sibley

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe

Other Awards:
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe)
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actor, Mucs(Streep)

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